5.10 — Reviews: Empowering the Consumer

Host Walter Isaacson and guests explore the history of the review, from clay tablets to influencers all to find out where along the way we stopped only minding experts and started minding each other.
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In this episode:

  • The first bad review? (0:00)
  • Reviews of art, reviews of commerce (3:23)
  • Testing over testimonials (5:02)
  • The internet changes everything, again (12:03)
  • Talking tomatoes (18:21)
  • Sniffing out fake reviews (21:45)
  • Influencers as the new reviewers (25:36)
  • Rating everything (30:42)

There was a time in the not-too-distant past where the only voices that influenced our opinions were those of professional critics or reviewers. With the democratization of opinion that came with the internet, that’s all changed, many would say for the better. How did this evolution in who we listen to and trust come about? Listen to find out.

Some additional materials for review.

  • The Trailblazers episode on fame touched on some similar concepts.
  • If you loved the Rotten Tomatoes story, our first episode explored more film industry disruptions.
  • It’s hard to spot which online reviews are fake, but you can do it, and this might help.
  • Creating an online review system that users can trust will take some work.

“Anyone who uses a product can form their opinions about it, whether they're an expert or not. ”

— MKBHD, aka Marques Brownlee, tech reviewer

Guest List

  • Kim Kleman was Editor-in-Chief of Consumer Reports, where she led the organization’s showcase brand and galvanized its editorial, testing, survey research and advocacy teams to produce a unique mix of reports. Today Kleman is the Senior Vice President of Report for America, a nonprofit national service program for local journalism that aims to end so-called news deserts.
  • Liza Featherstone is a writer at Jacobin Magazine, a contributing writer at The Nation and author of Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation.
  • RV Guha is the co-founder of Epinons.com, one of the first consumer product review websites on the internet. He is a Google Fellow with many patents and programs under his belt. He was a principal scientist at Apple, and a principal engineer at Netscape, where he created the first version of RSS.
  • Patrick Lee is an entrepreneur focused on the intersection of tech & entertainment best known for being a co-founder and the founding CEO of Rotten Tomatoes, a leading entertainment website focused on movie reviews and news.
  • Saoud Khalifah is the Founder and CEO at Fakespot, a B2C platform that protects shoppers from being scammed online.
  • Marques Brownlee is a top tech enthusiast who started his YouTube channel by reviewing products in his room when he was just a student in high school. Now labeled as the ‘best technology reviewer on the planet’, his videos have included industry heavyweights like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, and have been featured in top trade outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNET, and TIME.

Walter Isaacson:

There’s a customer complaint that, in the history of all customer complaints, truly sits in a league of its own. A customer orders a product, but when it arrives, it turns out to be different than what was advertised. The customer asks for his money back, but the vendor refuses. So the customer decides to write a complaint.

Walter Isaacson:

On the surface, this story seems fairly unremarkable. It sounds like the basic plot to almost any one-star online review submitted by some disgruntled customer who was duped by a less than truthful product description. But this one is different. It’s different because it was written in cuneiform script on a clay tablet in the year 1750 BC.

Walter Isaacson:

This complaint was written by an ancient Babylonian man named Nanni, who was a little less than impressed with the dishonest conduct of his new copper dealer, Ea-nasir. In his complaint, Nanni explains that, when he went to pick up his order, Ea-nasir tried to give him a much lower grade of copper than was promised. He goes on to describe how Ea-nasir, when questioned about the attempted bait and switch, rudely proclaimed, “If you will take it, take it. If you will not take it, go away.” Not exactly the response of a businessman who prioritizes good customer service.

Walter Isaacson:

Displayed at the British Museum, Nanni’s tablet is the oldest known customer complaint in history. There’s evidence that Ea-nasir’s questionable business practices eventually caught up with him, but that likely would have happened much sooner if his customers were able to publish their complaints online, for everyone to see.

Walter Isaacson:

Almost everything we buy is rated and reviewed. Sometimes these ratings and reviews are done by experts, but today, they’re more likely to be done by customers, such as Nanni, whose expertise is no different than our own. Social media and e-commerce review sites like Amazon have shifted the balance of power between business and their customers. But in a world where everyone’s a critic, how do we know whose opinion to trust?

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson, And you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2:

But which reviews can you trust?

Speaker 2:

(music)

Speaker 3:

Yes, today’s problem is merchandising.

Speaker 4:

Which one would you rather have in your kitchen?

Speaker 5:

The people who buy and the people who help them get what they want.

Speaker 6:

It’s better, of course.

Speaker 7:

That’s your opinion, not mine.

Speaker 8:

Well, I guess the first thing is to know your product.

Speaker 9:

And above all, the integrity of its ratings.

Walter Isaacson:

While reviews have been with us, in some form or another, for thousands of years, the technological advances of the last century have supercharged and empowered these voices in ways never before imagined. It’s January 21st, 1921, and New York city’s famed Carnegie Hall is premiering Charlie Chaplin’s new movie, The Kid. The movie is an instant box office hit and received rave reviews. One critic glowingly penned that The Kid is funnier than any of Chaplin’s previous films and “may be counted as a screen masterpiece.”

Walter Isaacson:

There is this sense amongst art critics of the time that Chaplin’s work demands attention and interpretation. So, many writers who were viewing live theater made the jump to film. Reviews once written for affluent theater audiences were brought to the masses.

Walter Isaacson:

The film industry was booming in the 1920s. In fact, the decade produced more movies than any other in US history, averaging an incredible 800 new films every year. Film enthusiasts had a dizzying amount of choice, so they turned to film experts for help. In doing so, consumers were introduced to the idea that expert opinion could guide their buying behavior. In fact, movie reviews were the precursor to product review publications, such as Consumer Reports Magazine.

Kim Kleman:

My name is Kim Kleman. I am a former staffer of Consumer Reports for about 16 years, I guess recently as Editor-in-Chief.

Walter Isaacson:

In her 16 years at Consumer Reports, Kim Kleeman presided over hundreds of tests of consumer products, all conducted by the magazine’s researchers, with no ties to manufacturers or advertisers.

Kim Kleman:

They don’t actually care about the results. What they do care about is the repeatability of the test, making sure that every product is tested the same way. That’s why there’s this incredible lab for dishwasher testing, and we had staffers who painted every dish in every dishwasher with egg and cherry pie filling, and all different things, to make sure that, yes, when you’re saying this dishwasher washed better than the next one, it was with the same identical load of dirty dishes. They went to great lengths to make sure that they were testing things fairly.

Walter Isaacson:

The origins of Consumer Reports date back to the first wave of consumer activism in the United States in the early years of the 20th century. Consumers were fed up with poorly made products and misleading advertisers, and they were eager to strike back.

Kim Kleman:

Consumer Reports started with a best-selling book. It was called Your Money’s Worth: A Study in the Waste Of the Consumer’s Dollar. That was published in 1927 by two guys, Fred Schlink and Stuart Chase. The book portrayed the deceptions lurking in advertising and said that purchases should be based on tests and not testimonials. So, they really launched this new social institution, which was the privately funded consumer product testing service.

Walter Isaacson:

The first issue of Consumer Reports appeared in May, 1936. The lead story was a test of different grades of milk. The magazine’s researchers concluded there was no difference in the quality of Grade A milk and the less expensive Grade B milk. That kind of independent reporting wasn’t welcome in many business and political circles, but American consumers embraced what the magazine was offering. At the time the first issue was published, the magazine had 3000 subscribers. A year later, there were more than 30,000.

Kim Kleman:

People were just crying for this kind of information. So, from the get-go, Consumer Reports was famously ad free. They bought everything they tested and it was solely funded by subscribers. Another important thing to remember is that they named names. So, not only the names of products and manufacturers that worked, but those that didn’t work. And that’s really important information for consumers to go into the marketplace and make wise decisions.

Walter Isaacson:

By the 1930s, American consumers were feeling more empowered than ever before. Their wishes could no longer be ignored, but many companies struggled to determine what exactly their customers wanted. There were tried and true methods, like suggestion boxes and comment cards left in stores and restaurants. There were newer techniques like polls and surveys to measure public opinion.

Walter Isaacson:

And there were focus groups that sought to determine not just what people liked, but why they liked it. Focus groups were first used in the United States in the 1930s to test the effectiveness of government propaganda against Nazi Germany. Before too long, they were also being used to gauge consumer reaction to soap and chocolate bars.

Liza Featherstone:

The 1930s and a little earlier, is around when we, as a society, start to think of ourselves as a mass of people having opinions and getting really curious about what other people’s opinions are.

Walter Isaacson:

Liza Featherstone is the author of Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation.

Liza Featherstone:

The culture of consultation is my term for a culture in which we, the people, are constantly consulted on our opinions, on everything from public policy to the texture of our bathmats. Our opinion is always solicited, and the technologies and means for gathering those opinions and feelings are constantly expanding. And yet, in the larger scheme of things, perhaps we have very little power.

Walter Isaacson:

The culture of consultation boomed along with the American economy in the years, following World War II. Companies turned to psychologists and motivational researchers to try to unlock the secret of the minds of American consumers. Business leaders were keen to place the consumer at the core of their decision-making. “The ruler of American industry is no industrialist,” proclaimed the Wall Street Journal in 1957. “He is King Customer, commanding what shall be produced and who shall produce it.”

Walter Isaacson:

The rhetoric about King Customer was impressive, but the reality was quite different. Apart from deciding not to buy their product, there was little anyone could do to express their unhappiness with a company, or to connect with other customers who might share a similar complaint. Communication was a one-way street. Companies could largely control their own narrative through advertising and by limiting their exposure to bad press. But all that changed with the arrival of the internet in the 1990s.

RV Guha:

On the web, anybody could publish, which meant that you didn’t have to go ask for permission.

Walter Isaacson:

This is RV Guha. In 1999, Guha and a group of other .com innovators were at the forefront of the information revolution.

RV Guha:

And it became clear that, whenever you have anybody who can publish, that is a really powerful thing.

Walter Isaacson:

Realizing this, Guha and his team founded one of the most anticipated startups in the history of Silicon Valley: epinions.com. Epinions was one of the Internet’s first user-generated product review sites, and it was integral to changing the relationship companies had with their customers.

RV Guha:

So, if one customer has a really bad experience, others can know about it in a much more easy fashion, which, in turn, leads to sellers and providers and businesses being more responsive.

Walter Isaacson:

But Epinions wasn’t just about holding companies accountable. It also helped consumers navigate the strange new world of online shopping.

RV Guha:

There were so many different .com companies trying to sell you a bad food to everything else. People are used to going into a store, talking to somebody who recommended one product or another, the sales person, and then buying it. Now, for the very first time, they were buying something from somebody they had never seen before. And we thought there would be an obvious need for product reviews.

Walter Isaacson:

So, how did Epinions work? If you’ve ever reviewed a product or done online research before making a purchase, you already know the answer. Users reviewed and ranked items, an aggregate score was calculated, and products were assigned a star rating from one to five.

Walter Isaacson:

Today, the merit of this idea seems self-explanatory. But back at the turn of the 21st century, many critics were skeptical. Up until this point, product reviews were largely written by professionals, and many debated whether or not consumers would want to write reviews, or if they had an appetite for amateur opinion. But the doubters were wrong.

Walter Isaacson:

When Epinions was acquired by dealtime.com in 2003, it had nearly 6 million users and was paving the way for industry leaders, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. Not only did Epinions shift power away from companies to their customers, it also shifted power from professional to amateur reviewers.

RV Guha:

Before, say, 96, 97, 98, there were a small number of publications. Most often these publications were print publications, which had staff who worked for them, who tried out a product or two, and wrote these reviews, and consumer review sites changed that. You did not depend on just one or two people’s opinion. There are certain decisions which require an enormous amount of expertise. If you’re trying to figure out something about brain surgery, you required an enormous amount of expertise. There are other situations where you don’t require that much expertise. You need some experience.

Walter Isaacson:

People do not require enormous amounts of expertise to effectively review a product, but they do need experience. Research shows that in many arenas, the collective opinion of a group of individuals, it’s usually more accurate in the opinion of a single expert. This is because the average judgment of many people is less likely to be influenced by the biases or blind spots that exist in everyone, including experts. The utter magnitude of commentary we share online creates a pool of information that a small group of disparate experts would be hard pressed to match.

Walter Isaacson:

And this is a big reason why amateur reviewers displaced professionals. This amateurization of opinion was further entrenched with the introduction of blogging and social media a few years later. Epinions paid its users depending on the amount of traffic there were views generated, and some users tried to game this system. So Guha added a feature to the site that let users put reviewers they found helpful on a trust list, and reviewers who wrote inaccurate or offensive posts on a block list. This effectively elevated Epinions from the domain of product review site, to one of the earliest manifestations of an online social network.

RV Guha:

You could do the equivalent of rating others. You can say you trusted somebody or didn’t trust somebody, and they called this the Web of Trust. And so, there was this network of people and you could get notifications when one of these people wrote a new review. When you looked at the site as a consumer and you had trusted some people, you could see reviews from those people. There were people who cultivated their follower club, and there were all kinds of fascinating social dynamics. At some point, we realized that more than 25, 30% of the page were not to products, but to other people. People were people surfing, all the things that we kind of take for granted in any social media website today.

Walter Isaacson:

The introduction of trust lists was a novel idea, and it did help address inaccurate reviews on the site. But the real victory for Guha and his team is that Epinions completely change how we read, write and evaluate reviews, including those penned by cinephiles.

Walter Isaacson:

Today, the most important factor determining a movie’s success may be whether or not it has a fresh red tomato or rotten green splat icon beside its name.

Patrick Lee:

My name is Patrick Lee. I think the best way to identify me is probably co-founder and founding CEO of Rotten Tomatoes.

Walter Isaacson:

Patrick Lee was running a web design firm in 1998, when his creative director, Senh Duong, came up with an idea to help movie fans decide which movie they should go see.

Patrick Lee:

He’s a huge Jackie Chan fan, and when the movie Rush Hour was coming out, he wanted to know what all the critics were saying about the movie. So, he went to the library. He actually looked up reviews from critics in magazines and newspapers, and wrote down a quote, and then went back to try and build a website around that. So, Sinh’s idea was, “What if I included all the quotes, good and bad, from professional critics, and then tell you the percentage of critics that recommended seeing the movie?” And so that’s how Rotten Tomatoes was started.

Walter Isaacson:

Today, the opinions of its hundreds of print, online and video reviewers are critical to a movie’s success at the box office. That power used to be held by a few influential critics. By offering up the aggregated scores from professional critics, Rotten Tomatoes greatly expands a range of professional opinion, but they didn’t stop there.

Patrick Lee:

And then we [inaudible 00:20:03] the mission tool and extended that to users, and allowed users to write it. And so when we had that, we ended up having a user score for all the users’ reviews.

Walter Isaacson:

Rotten Tomatoes, and other review aggregation sites like it, have found a way to organize and make sense of the many competing opinions we share online. In the age of the internet, more voices often equals more trust and credibility. More data is better than less, right?

Walter Isaacson:

Well, that depends on the authenticity of the reviews. In recent years, Rotten Tomatoes has had a real problem with review bombing. Some users were writing reviews for movies they had never seen, in an effort to raise or lower the score of certain films. So, in 2019, Rotten Tomatoes came up with a system to try and tackle fake reviews on their site. They now require users to submit a ticket stub, to verify whether they’ve actually seen the movie they want to review. If they don’t their review won’t be included in the movie’s overall score.

Walter Isaacson:

So, in essence, Rotten Tomatoes is trying to address the same problem Guha faced at Epinions nearly 20 years ago. How do you ensure that reviews are trustworthy? But phony reviews aren’t just a problem for Rotten Tomatoes. They distort consumer review scores in every major market on the internet. Luckily, there are people who are trying to sniff them out.

Saoud Khalifa:

Reviews are a critical component for e-commerce. If you see a product that has zero stars, would you buy it?

Walter Isaacson:

This is Saoud Khalifa. He’s the founder and CEO of Fakespot. Fakespot uses artificial intelligence to identify fake reviews on big retail websites, such as Amazon and Walmart.

Saoud Khalifa:

So you see we’ve all been programmed to actually look at the stars and actually now check out with the notion that this is going to be a good product, a good purchase. Without stars, you don’t get any sales. So, on the digital front, reviews are critical and the opinions of others are basically what can make or break the purchase.

Walter Isaacson:

In fact, 84% of people who read online reviews, trust them as much as a recommendation from a friend. And that is why Khalifa pays a lot of attention to them. He’s trying to protect consumers from being duped by fake reviews. The web is swimming in them. And this fact indicates how crucial reviews have become for e-commerce. Khalifa estimates that more than 40% of the roughly 720 million product reviews on Amazon are bogus. In 2015, he started Fakespot. The idea for the company came from his own personal experience.

Saoud Khalifa:

I was graduating from college, and I’ve been a big shopper on Amazon since the mid-2000s. And this one product was a supplement. This supplement had hundreds of five star reviews, so I didn’t think twice about it. I just didn’t want to click checkout. When I opened up this package, it looked like someone took out wood dust from a carpentry shop and embedded it within the pill content. So, to me, this made no sense. Why are there hundreds of five star reviews, really giving a positive sentiment for this?

Walter Isaacson:

So, Khalifa went back and looked at those five star reviews, and saw patterns in language and cadence that convinced him that most were written by bots, not humans. He created Fakespot, so users would be able to distinguish legitimate reviews from fake ones. So far, the company has analyzed more than 8 billion reviews, but Khalifa admits it’s hard to keep up with the fraudsters.

Saoud Khalifa:

Today, the amount of fake reviews we’re seeing is just insane compared to the old days. The internet brought so many good things for us, so much dissemination of knowledge, and along with that, I consider reviews a great tool for the digital economy. Unfortunately, if there’s so much fraud and such prominent fraud, that it’s basically turning the scales here in the favor of the fraudsters, it has now become a negative aspect of the e-commerce transaction, and something that must be tackled, for sure.

Walter Isaacson:

The internet has legitimized the voice of the customer, but it’s also empowered those who want to game the system, looking for a leg up on the competition. The wave of fake reviews, paired with the sheer volume of disembodied product testimonials, is making it increasingly difficult to navigate the online marketplace. Just like the movie goers and the 1920s, consumers are overwhelmed and need guidance, but product experts, like the testers at Consumer Reports and the handful of pre-internet, name brand movie critics, don’t have the influence they once did. So, maybe we need to consult a new type of expert to test and review our products.

Marques Brownlee:

My name is Marques Brownlee. My YouTube channel and all the handles and everything are all MKBHD.

Walter Isaacson:

Marques Brownlee is an unlikely candidate to be one of the most reputable and influential people in tech, but that’s precisely with this 27-year-old is. He produces video reviews of the latest tech gadgets under the name MKBHD, which stands for Marquez K Brownlee High Definition.

Walter Isaacson:

More than 13 million people subscribe to his YouTube channel. Where his 1000+ videos have been viewed more than 2 billion times. He has over 4 million Twitter followers, and he’s interviewed many of the biggest names in tech, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. He started without any particular expertise and no bankroll, but he did have an idea. 12 years ago, when he was just a 15 year old New Jersey high school student, Brownlee was planning to buy his first laptop, and was doing research by watching YouTube videos.

Marques Brownlee:

After watching all the videos, I came to decide which one I wanted, made the purchase and got the laptop. When I got the laptop, I started to notice, as I started using it, little things I didn’t actually see in those videos that I felt would actually have been good to know. So, it felt sort of natural to turn the camera on myself and make a video about those things. So, if someone was in the same purchase decision I was in, they could go on YouTube, watch whatever videos they needed, and know even more about that laptop.

Walter Isaacson:

That video has now been viewed nearly 4 million times, and Brownlee has become the most popular tech reviewer on YouTube. Social media takes our culture of consultation that started with focus groups and grew with review sites to a whole new level. Not only does it let us easily share our opinions about different products, we can also start discussions about specific companies. YouTubers, Twitter users and Instagram influencers have the power to name names and rattle corporate cages, much like Consumer Reports started doing back in the 1930s. But Brownlee and other social media moguls reach a significantly bigger audience. And today, many shoppers are more likely to seek out reputable social media personalities, such as Marquez Brownlee, for advice.

Marques Brownlee:

I think that says our voices are increasingly more important. And I think the reason for that is because they’re independent and because they’re trusted and they’re actually built on something that’s consistent and trackable. I mean, I was born in 1993, so I did have the tech section of the newspaper as a kid, but I didn’t feel quite as connected with the personality or the person writing the article as much as I just saw it in the newspaper.

Marques Brownlee:

I think a level of trust is developed when it’s a personality that you can relate a little bit more to, when it’s a person talking to you, when it’s a video of someone talking to their webcam or someone who bought the product and wants to share what they learned with you. The enthusiasm and just the level of emotion and authenticity and trust that comes from that is kind of on a whole new level. And I think that’s the mediums that young people are flocking to today.

Walter Isaacson:

Although he’s concerned to be one of the most trusted tech voices on the web, Marques Brownlee doesn’t think of himself as an expert, at least not in the traditional sense of that word.

Marques Brownlee:

Here’s what I think I have to be an expert in, because anyone who uses a product can form their opinions about it, whether they’re an expert or not. But I think what makes an “expert” – I’m using air quotes but you can’t see them, but an “expert” on this creative endeavor that we do, which is make videos, is translating those feelings that we all have into words and into a video, into an entertaining, concise, information-dense piece that can inform the buying decision of someone who doesn’t hold that thing. I think that’s the challenge.

Walter Isaacson:

Brownlee is an example of how our ideas about expertise have evolved. Expertise, as it applies to reviewers, used to be measured by pretty standard metrics, such as education, experience, knowledge and employment. Now, more intangible qualities like trust, transparency and authenticity are a priority as well. In the age of information, information overload is all too common, but luckily there are trusted personalities, like Marques Brownlee, to help us cut through the clutter.

Walter Isaacson:

In the 1950s, when American businesses declared, “The customer is King,” it was mostly a public relations slogan. Today, even with the scourge of fake product reviews and the huge number of amateur opinions clamoring for attention on social media, it’s much closer to being reality.

Walter Isaacson:

But we’re not just reviewing products. Much like the scathing review that Nanni wrote about Ea-nasir nearly 3,800 years ago, we’re also starting to review people. If you’re a driver for a ride sharing company, your continued employment depends, to a large extent, on how many stars you get from the passengers in your backseat. A dating app called Once allows women to rate and review things like the photos and conversational skills of the men they date, and share that information with other members of the Once community.

Walter Isaacson:

In fact, haven’t we been reviewing people online since RV Guha implemented trust lists on Epinions.com 20 years ago? Ranking someone as trustworthy or not on Epinions, or liking a post on Facebook, as basic as it might be, is still, in essence, a personal judgment. And every judgment is, in a way, a review.

Walter Isaacson:

Will reviewing individuals become commonplace in the near future? It’s difficult to say, but it certainly seems possible. I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you’d like to learn more about any of the guests on today’s show, please visit delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.